Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

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My Havana Moment

The frequency was perhaps around 30 Hertz. Even though it was at the threshold of audibility, It blocked my ability to absorb other sounds, suggesting that it originated from a source with a lot of energy. 

The Havana Syndrome has been in the news lately. 60 Minutes recently concluded that it was a real thing, probably a Russian “black op” attempt to disrupt life within America’s Havana Embassy. And just a few weeks ago a long-term federal study concluded the opposite, noting that researchers could find no hard evidence of an invasive “sonic gun” affecting workers in Cuba and, more recently, in other world capitals.

A recent post here suggested that the Feds are probably right. The likely root causes of ear and balance issues may be all the accumulated and unnoticed ear damage that can give us all symptoms of the syndrome: dizziness, nausea, persistent ringing in the ears, and even damage to bones in the middle ear. It turns out that many of us have routinely subjected our ears to physical and auditory abuse: a cause of hearing loss now common in middle aged and older adults. In addition, add in this complication: the more the syndrome is discussed the more it is likely that people sharing the same office may connect with the idea. When that happens it is sometimes called “somatic contagion.” Similar effects are attributed to maladies frequently seen within a community.

But a small but revealing event last week gave me pause. For two short periods I seemed to be bombarded by infrasound–very low frequency sound–below what we would expect to hear in most environments.  To be sure, how we process moving air moving at slow frequencies is a tricky threshold. Slow vibrations are generally felt by the body. But a somewhat higher rate of vibrations come to us as sound.

Was my experience a case of somatic contagion?

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As has been the pattern for this site, all things sound related are fair game. Sound and noise are everywhere, but sometimes hard to isolate against the clutter of other environmental variables. My simple experience was puzzling and unnerving. I spent a typical afternoon tackling revisions on future posts to this site. The room I work in is quiet and long. I’ll explain why that is important in a minute. It is also below ground on three sides and open to some woods on the fourth.  At about 2:00 in the afternoon a unusual sensation enveloped me. Steady and penetrating, a low rumble seemed to momentarily block the rest of the ambient noise in the space. To be sure, disruptive sounds are not so unusual. Construction trucks and a nearby four lane bridge can create rumbles of sound. But this was different. The pitch was steady, and continuous for perhaps two separate 45 second intervals. Even though it was not loud, It blocked my ability to absorb other sounds, suggesting that it originated from a source with a lot of energy. The frequency was perhaps around 30 Hz. This would be near or below the kind of tone we might hear from a deep 32-foot pipe on an organ, and a bit below my hearing threshold.  But it was more like what a body-piercing sound might be pumped into the soundtrack of a horror movie. It’s pitch was constant, but it was not musical. And to my surprise, it began to make me queasy. Not a typical response for me. I tried to put it out of my mind, pausing to think of where I could go to get away from it. But my increasingly nauseated self knew that low frequencies travel far and are not easily stopped. I was relieved when it finally did.

Normally I am fascinated with sound but annoyed with noise. The difference I believe is in whether a tone is coherent or a set of random frequencies. The difference is between middle “C” on a piano at 261 Hz, or cycles per second, versus the sound of utensils bouncing around a drawer at no discernible harmonic patterns.

I wondered about the causes. Was this my own experience a version of somatic contagion?  Having previously written about the topic, was I mostly imagining it? Or could it be my neighbor’s stereo and his subwoofer, with overtones that leave a muddy rumble on my side of our common wall? Or perhaps we were having yet another earthquake aftershock. That surprising event a few weeks ago rolled through our neighborhood of townhomes like an express train. Trucks on a nearby highway also produce noise stripped of all but low rumbles from straining engines. One last thought:  perhaps a furnace or water heater in the adjoining room was emitting an overtone that matched the resonance of my work space. As I noted in an early study, every space “wants’ to hear a particular pitch known as its “modal” resonance. And, though the dynamics of this process can get complex, long spaces can sometimes accentuate low frequency sounds  especially near walls.

Here’s the point. This all would have passed by without much more than annoyance had I not just rewritten a recent blog piece on the Havana Syndrome. But having experienced something that could be imagined as a “sonic gun,” I had a sense of what sufferers with longer and more severe symptoms might have experienced. Noise is often auditory garbage. It is only when we remind ourselves of its ubiquitousness do we become interested in sorting out its sources.

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Where Was I?

To the question “Where was I?” a common reply is that we were probably “peripherally processing:” tuning out most that was said. 

[A 2018 essay on a very helpful theory of message reception got the basic model right. But in hindsight I discovered that I didn’t more thoroughly consider how our busy lives force us to sacrifice the rewards of being fully engaged with a single challenge. Drifting away from a person’s words now seems like the norm. I suspect we only have the required discipline at peak moments of focus when we know that something important is on the line: everything from two pilots in a cockpit reviewing contingencies prior to what will be a difficult landing, to a journalist getting just one shot to ask a newsmaker a question. Too infrequently do we engage in this kind of critical awareness.  Here’s an updated version of that piece with two key terms from a theory that offers useful language to access whether a receiver is fully engaged on a single task.]

Occasionally an idea in communication comes along that provokes the realization that it would not be possible to live without it. Good theories can help us see what is right in front of us. So, it is with a set of observations that fall under the name of Elaboration-Likelihood Model. The name might be a little off-putting. But as a framework for insights about how messages are likely to be received by others, the model is golden. It has been enormously helpful in various branches of the social sciences. We are in the realm of the theory when we wonder how we missed seeing or hearing a message that came our way.  To the question “Where was I,” the answer is probably that you were focused on a challenging task or, more likely, tuning out most everything that came your way. Not paying adequate attention is a modern affliction.

                Elaboration Likelihood Theory

The framework first proposed by Richard E. Petty and John Cacioppo proposes that we think about the reception of messages as coming via one of two general pathways. Messages that are “centrally processed” are, by definition, the kinds that trigger a whole set of critical responses. These are claims and ideas readers or listeners think about. Their engagement means that they are more inclined to assess these assertions against what they know. Their beliefs or behaviors have been put into play and may change.

The model assumes that serious attempts at advocacy or involvement must gain a strong foothold in our consciousness. Those messages that get scant attention are said to be “peripherally processed.”  A message like an advertisement or a casual request from another may wash over us quickly. We are not especially interested or motivated to hang on every word. And, as you would guess, the message is not likely to produce significant or lasting change. It has not created an impression that sticks.

All of this may seem more or less obvious. But considering how much a person or audience cares is a worthwhile question. It asks if you can trigger enough attention and interest to have a chance at producing real effects. As labels, “Peripheral” and “Central Processing” are good ‘top-of-mind’ concepts. Keep them in your head as you parse out the amount of energy you want to invest in sending or receiving a message.

The model’s relevance increases every year as Americans recede into ever-deeper waters of message overload. We simply weren’t made to attend to what is now a routine exposure to many hundreds of messages every day.  We may deceive ourselves into believing that we can multi-task and accurately consume all that is thrown at us. We can’t. Truth to be told, we’re not good multitaskers. Peripheral processing means that we will miss too much to feel bound by a specific request.  It’s antidote is active listening. 

Watch a skilled grade schoolteacher manage a class and you will see a survivor who knows that active listening and central processing are essential and hard won. It takes time, repeated attempts, aa lot of eye contact and follow up. When we get older, we are our own bad actors by endlessly staring at phones and multitasking. As we’ve noted before, none of us are good multitaskers. Multitasking is the gateway to incorrect directions, missed messages, misunderstandings and, finally, a growing frustration of being disconnected from people that matter.

Another person’s attention may be essential. But it is not easily given.

When you find yourself saying to a friend our spouse “I mentioned it yesterday; I’m sure I said it” we are likely recalling something that mattered much more to us than the person who was supposed to be listening.  And, while we can get frustrated at the other’s inattention, we also need to cut them the slack by recognizing that communicating with a peripheral processor is a bit like shouting in the forest. The people close by may look like they have heard us. The Elaboration Likelihood model reminds us to have some doubts.

There’s also an interesting twist here. Someone who is fully engaged with their own thoughts—critically thinking them through—may not have much time for another’s extraneous conversation. Albert Einstein was supposedly forgetful. Was this was because he was engaged in the challenges of playing out the nuances of major insights like the theory of relativity? By now it is a cliché for an author to construct a character like the absent-minded professor:  intensely focused on one thing, yet unable to take in the verbal clutter around them. That’s my excuse, even if no one no one lets me get away with it. But you can see the irony here: peripheral processing might be one consequence of central processing. The more we are locked into exploring a singular idea, the less we may be available to adequately receive the messages of others.

Of course, the model is more nuanced than I have presented. Wikipedia has a more complete overview of it. And models with only two reference points need to accommodate the likelihood of various gradients. But anyone who wants to break through the crust of a peripheral processor can start by considering several recommendations. First, repeat what you deem important. A tactful rewording of the message that you want another to retain may help. Second, give the peripheral-processing “forgetter” some slack. To deal with every message that comes to us is not possible. If we tried to do it, we would need a mental health intervention. To be sure, another person’s attention may be expected. But the requirements for sanity in an over-communicated society mean that it can’t be easily given.  Finally, as a receiver, practice central processing. Repeat what you heard someone else describe.  Take notes. Ask questions.  Do whatever is required to fully give yourself over to their message.

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